Spring is coming and blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are talking about it. In addition to their typical “Jeer!” calls, they now make odd sounds that you might not recognize.
Here are two courtship season sounds, Pumphandle and Rattle, followed by an everyday “Jeer!” (You’ll also hear a crow, white-breasted nuthatch and others in this sound bite.)
Blue jays bob up and down when they make the Pumphandle sound and, according to the Stokes Guide, it “may be directed at other males in a courtship group or a predator.” When it’s directed at a predator it’s a low intensity comment as if to say, “I see you, Hawk, but you’re not threatening yet.”
Rattle calls are made only by females! Vassar’s website says, they’re “a series of rapid clicks that often have one sharp click at the beginning and end of the call, often emitted within a flock, as alert calls, or when another jay intrudes on a pair’s space.”
Seeing is believing. Watch the spring calls and sounds of blue jays in two videos by Lesley The Bird Nerd.
If you heard these sounds without seeing the bird making them, would you think it was a blue jay?
Peregrine falcons in southwestern PA are preparing for the nesting season by conspicuously claiming territory and courting mates. Here’s a roundup of recent peregrine news plus a regional map of known sites. Notice the dates. If you want to see a peregrine falcon, now is the time to do it!
This eBird map of recent sightings shows that peregrine locations are skewed north of the City of Pittsburgh. There may be peregrines south of Pittsburgh but we need observers along the Monongahela River.
Cathedral of Learning, Univ of Pittsburgh:
Morela and Ecco have been staying close to home at the Cathedral of Learning and visiting their nestbox every day. The easiest way to see them is “live” on the National Aviary falconcam, video below.
If they’re not on the falconcam check all the perches at the top of the building (area highlighted above). Peregrines somehow manage to match the building so you’ll need binoculars.
Last year Morela laid her first egg on 18 March. When will her first egg appear this year?
Montgomery Brown reports the Downtown peregrines in eBird from a vantage point at One Oxford Center, most recently on 8 Feb. Have peregrines shown up at the 3rd Avenue nest site yet (photo above)? More observers needed!
UPDATE on 24 Feb 2023: Jeff Cieslak photographed a peregrine perched at the 3rd Avenue nest ledge as seen from Mt. Washington.
p.s. Are any peregrines at the Gulf Tower? No. Peregrines have not used the Gulf Tower site since 2017. Observers in the building will let us know if the peregrines show up.
Monaca RR Bridge, Ohio River:
Dante Zuccaro reports one or two peregrines almost every day at the Monaca Railroad Bridge as seen from the mouth of the Beaver River. Check the bridge closely. This pair is very reliable but hard to see. Jeff Cieslak’s photo is from 9 January.
Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, Ohio River:
This winter Mark Vass periodically has seen one or two peregrines at the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, most recently on 20 February. In five years a nest has never been confirmed.
Sewickley Bridge, Ohio River:
On an errand in Sewickley yesterday I saw one peregrine atop the Sewickley Bridge. A pair was seen as recently as 11 February. Keep an eye on the Sewickley Bridge in case the peregrines decide to nest there.
Eckert Street near McKees Rocks Bridge, Ohio River:
While on Ohio River Boulevard yesterday I saw a peregrine perched on the power tower near Alcosan thanks to the McKees Rocks Bridge stoplight. The tower is a favorite hangout of the Eckert Street Bridge peregrines who raised four young last spring.
Jeff Cieslak often visits the Eckert Street territory and provides this map of places to see the peregrines. His “Ohio River Boulevard” arrow points to Eckert Street.
Westinghouse Bridge, Turtle Creek:
The Westinghouse Bridge peregrines have become more visible as they ramp up to the nesting season. Dana Nesiti stops by to see them when he gets a break from photographing the Hays bald eagles. This pair is easy to see before the female lays eggs in mid to late March.
Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River:
The Tarentum Bridge peregrines are very conspicuous lately and seen by many observers. In Dave Brooke’s photo above, the female is perched on the navigation lightpole with a full crop.
This winter Theo Rickert has been checking the Graff Bridge near Kittanning with good success and reported two peregrines on site on 19 February. This nest site is probably used every year but sometimes no one notices. Thank you, Theo!
No recent news: There’s been no news since last year from three sites.
Clairton Coke Works: This nest produced three young last year but it cannot be seen outside the premises. We await news from USS employees at Clairton Coke Works.
62nd Street Bridge / Highland Park Bridge / Aspinwall Riverfront Park, Allegheny River: There are 3 bridges to check in close proximity, any one of which might have a peregrine family. Take a look and tell me if you find a peregrine.
Speers Railroad Bridge, Washington County, Monongahela River: No news from this site for over a year. Observers needed!
Additional bridges to watch: Peregrines love to perch on top of bridges. Check these out!
West End Bridge, Ohio River.
Bridges at Downtown Pittsburgh over the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers including Roberto Clemente (6th), Andy Warhol (7th), Rachel Carson (9th), Smithfield Street
40th Street Bridge, Allegheny River
Glenwood Bridge, Monongahela River
Check out any site and tell me what you see. Need directions? Leave a comment.
Even though Morela won’t lay eggs until mid March, the peregrine falcon pair at the Cathedral of Learning are actively courting and preparing their nest. Yesterday they bowed for several minutes and dug the scrape.
Peregrines don’t build stick nests. Instead they lay eggs in a bowl that they scrape in dirt or gravel on their chosen cliff ledge. The bowl prevents their eggs from rolling off the cliff and shelters the eggs while they incubate. The nest is the bowl; it’s called a “scrape. “
In late February and early March the Pitt peregrines spend ever longer periods at the nest, together or separately. Yesterday morning Ecco called Morela to come join him. When she didn’t arrive he dug at the scrape.
By 10am Ecco had convinced Morela to bow with him. Notice how they nearly touch beaks.
After their bowing session Morela went through the motions of digging at the scrape, then stood in it a while. Maybe she was thinking of the day she’ll lay an egg.
Every day Morela and Ecco are spending more time at the nest. Watch them on the National Aviary falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning.
The months of February and March are some of the best times to see peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) in southwestern Pennsylvania as the birds ramp up their courtship rituals and become more visible.
Pitt peregrines Morela and Ecco visit their nest more often at the Cathedral of Learning, but in this early stage of courtship they are easily distracted. Yesterday the male, Ecco, bowed and called at the nest for five minutes (a high whistle sound) before Morela would even look at him.
The video begins just before she starts to pay attention. Morela looks at him and responds with a gravelly “e-chup” but Ecco is distracted by material in the corner of the nestbox. In the space of two minutes they pay attention to each other, and then they don’t.
By the time Ecco leaves the nest, he’s distracted and Morela is focused.
Watch the Pitt peregrines “live” on the National Aviary falconcam at the Cathedral of Learning. We expect Morela to lay eggs in mid March.
Meanwhile look for peregrines at a nesting site near you, listed below with updates current to the date at top right.
Even though it’s December and the weather will only get worse, western Pennsylvania’s bald eagles are gearing up for the nesting season with plans to lay eggs in February.
Established pairs are hanging out together and guarding their territories. Interlopers are testing the limits to see if they can claim an existing site. Subadult eagles are roaming the rivers, trying to steal prey from each other and adults.
Dedicated eagle watchers are already stopping by the viewing sites to catch a glimpse of the action.
At 9:17am a Peregrine Falcon flew past the nest upstream carrying prey. The male gave chase and they both flew up and over the hillside. 9:35am the male comes flying back carrying prey with a sub adult hot on his tail feathers. They flew down past the stick store and we saw them dive, both eagles came circling back towards the nest. Now the sub adult was carrying the prey and the male was chasing him.
What do you do when your nest and babies sail away without you? A house finch couple on Pittsburgh’s North Shore have learned to wait for the boat to come home.
This spring a pair of house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were very quick to build a nest atop a loud speaker on the aft deck of the Rivers of Steel Explorer, docked behind the Carnegie Science Center. By the time the crew caught up with them the female had finished the nest and laid eggs, so the nest had to remain undisturbed until it was empty.
When would it be empty? Not yet. In August? In September?
House finches are masters at back-to-back nesting, raising three to six broods per year. As the young approach fledging the male takes charge of them while the female starts the next round of egg laying. On the Explorer the female doesn’t pause between one brood and the next.
When I met the Explorer finch family on 26 July they had already raised several broods and were caring for young approximately two days old. While our tour waited on deck for the boat to depart the father fed three tiny nestlings. They are growing fast! Here they are three days later on 29 July.
Our tour pulled away from the dock and I forgot about the house finches for 90 minutes while we traveled Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Mother and father house finch were absent but they had not forgotten. Waiting on shore they were so attuned to the habits of the Explorer that when the vessel maneuvered to dock they raced across the channel to the aft deck. “The kids are home!”
The Traveling Nest is one of many birding highlights on Rivers of Steel Explorer tours. Captain Ryan O’Rourke explained, “In addition to hosting a bird-watching cruise with the National Aviary, part of our educational program for students includes a lesson in birding and how birds can be indicators of the health of our rivers.”
This April Charity Kheshgi and I noticed Cooper’s hawks nesting in Frick Park and wondered when their young would fledge. In “Cooper’s Hawk Nesting Questions” I concluded the young would fly by June 22-26 at the latest. They were even later than that because…
This month we checked on their progress every few days. On 3 July the pair had four thriving youngsters who were walking on branches and making short hops. (Not fledged yet?) By 8 July the young could fly but they refused to leave the vicinity of the nest.
All four were still there on 14 July, flying well and begging near the nest. “Feed me!” Their father baby-sat, above, while their mother was out hunting. The young were very alert, especially when they saw “mom” coming home.
July 14th was the last time we saw all six family members together. Five days later they had dispersed. The Cooper’s hawk family had grown up.
Merlins (Falco columbarius) are small fast falcons about the size of pigeons, though pigeons outweigh them. Like their peregrine cousins, merlins declined because of DDT and their population retracted into Canada’s boreal forest. After DDT was outlawed, they recovered slowly and in 1995-2014 began to take up residence further south. Some began nesting in towns and cities.
Four months later on 18 July Malcolm saw proof that they’d raised a family — a juvenile with parents at Chatham.
County record! Merlins are nesting in Pittsburgh!
Birds of the World, Merlin account explains: “Merlins do not build a nest and make few if any modifications to an old corvid or hawk nest. In cities, they nest in conifers in residential areas, school yards, parks, and cemeteries. High availability of safe nesting sites (corvid nests in spruces) and high prey abundance (house sparrows) appear to be two main reasons for urban populations of merlins.”
Yes, I’ve seen plenty of house sparrows in the merlins’ territory.
How long will the juvenile merlin hang around?
Again from Birds of the World, Merlin account, “Fledglings remain dependent upon adults and remain near nest sites for 1 to 4 weeks. They often hunt for dragonflies, which are abundant in July and August and may half-heartedly chase potential prey species or pigeons.”
Will the Chatham merlins be back next year? Perhaps nearby but not in the same nest. Merlins rarely use the same nest in two consecutive years.